Lauded as a victory for equal rights, Barack Obama signed legislation today adding sexual orientation to the criteria constituting a federal hate crime. Becoming law just over a decade after the bill’s eponymous victims – Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. – were both savagely killed because they were gay. Many on the left welcomed it as a solid win for the agenda, one that was sorely needed following this summer’s shellacking. Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solomonese went so far to call the law “our nation’s first major piece of civil rights legislation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”
While the backs were patted and the champagne was popped in Washington over the landmark legislation, a community on the other side of the continent grapples with a tragedy of its own. Outside a high school in Richmond, California, a 15-year-old girl was gang-raped for two and a half hours during a Homecoming dance. Police are now reporting as many as 20 people were watching and no one – no one – did anything to stop it.
It was an act so obscene one is revolted by even speaking of it; a crime so hateful no language can adequately describe.
In anyone’s moral spectrum, the brutal beating of Matthew Shepard, the savage dragging of James Byrd Jr. and the gang-rape of a 15-year-old at her Homecoming dance are unimaginably evil. Each are a vile uniquely human. Each a trespass not only against one victim, but against the entire community in which he/she lives.
How is it, then, we would create a document declaring one more vulgar than the other? How is it we can judge one of these criminals as more disgusting than the others? In matters this grave, is creating a distinction between them not an obscenity itself?
The monsters capable of rendering such particularly despicable deeds seem to me to be beyond classification. They are a special evil for whom no laws can be made to discourage. The motivations that drive these people aren’t going to be tempered by penalties and mandatory sentences. They are so deeply seated and wrong they can not be fixed. These people that did these things are broken. Deciding the manner in which we cast them from society offers little repair.
I’ve never been able to reconcile the adjective and noun in “hate crime.” Murder and rape are always crimes of hate, regardless of whatever thought was in the murderer’s and rapist’s head at the time. Our laws can only broadly classify the severity of these broadly, with each case bringing with it a special horror, each sentence we levy a correction that came far too late.
For all the hours I’ve logged in the civil rights movement of our generation – equality for all – it is hard for me to view the Shepard law as a victory. If we are going to distinguish socially-motivated violence then sexual orientation certainly belongs in that definition, but in so creating that distinction are we not implicitly cementing the differences we wish to eradicate into our laws? Are we not conceding that little can be done to change the environments that allowed these tragedies to occur?
When considering these crimes, the element I find most nauseating are the communities that bore them. The crowds that stood idly by, the voices that remained silent when that evil was perpetrated before them. The people that did these things weren’t born wanting to visit this evil upon their victims. That lack of regard for human life was learned in Laramie, Wyoming, in Jasper, Texas, in Richmond, California, and in all the depraved pockets of America that produce this kind of vile horror. It was learned in these climates of hate, which remain beyond the reach of law to correct.
To give their work a new name seems to be postponing the effort to change the communities that enabled them to happen. Just defining them feels to me like giving up.